Monthly Report: June 2020

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By Scott Ross

Gaily, Gaily (1969) I first saw this one on television (if you remember when each of the three then-major networks ran theatrical movies on a weekly basis, you are officially old) and remember very little about it except that it was loud and sometimes frenetic, that the very young Beau Bridges was appealing, that Brian Keith was his usual splendid self, and that the production design evoking turn-of-the-century Chicago was impressive. Seeing the picture again I note that it is loud and frenetic, that Beau Bridges is appealing, that Brian Keith is… but need I go on? Sometimes, with movies, one’s adolescent memories offer a more reliable guide than might be supposed.

Gaily, Gaily - Bridges, Keith
Considering the gifts of its director, Norman Jewison, and the richness of its nominal source material, there’s absolutely no excuse for Gaily, Gaily‘s being so ephemeral and insignificant. Ben Hecht’s 1962 book of reminiscence is so delightful, so fulsomely reconstructed, so alternately bittersweet and cynical, and so chock-full of possibilities for cinematic adaptation, that the movie’s eschewing nearly every one of them is utterly flabbergasting. The only anecdote Abram S. Ginnes used in his largely witless screenplay — the attempt by a hustling reporter (Keith, in the movie) to abet a quack doctor’s plan of resurrecting a hanged felon via a new miracle injection — is foolishly extended at the climax, in which the dead Bridges gets a shot of the stuff, vibrates wildly on the slab and returns to life. This vitiates the original anecdote, and the movie’s own joke payoff of it. To what end? And what are we to make, at the movie’s finish, of the series of shock-cuts by Jewison revealing the stage-lights and unfinished rafters of the elaborate main whorehouse set?* That it’s all a joke? That nothing is to be believed?

Even Hecht wasn’t that cynical.


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Crack-Up (1946) As a filmmaker, Irving Reis was a great radio director. Crack-Up is a mildly diverting RKO mystery in which you are asked to believe Pat O’Brien as a lecturer on art and Herbert Marshall as a cop. Throughout, the effect of Citizen Kane‘s visual palette on lesser moviemakers is obvious (Orson Welles’ old Mercury stalwarts Erskine Sanford and Ray Collins even show up as two of the villains) but nearly every sequence and shot is over-extended, as if Reis was afraid the proverbial illiterate yokel in the back row wouldn’t be able to follow otherwise. The best things in the picture are a scene between O’Brien and an elderly, cantankerous train station agent (Guy Beach… I think) and a sequence set in a Times Square arcade similar to the one immortalized in The Bandwagon, which also has the virtue of one good punchline, spoken by Harry Monty. Marshall, who lost a leg after being shot in the knee by a sniper during World War I, is required to move, in full-shot, rather more often than seems entirely necessary and in a manner that borders on cruelty. The oddest thing about the movie is the way the otherwise effective Leigh Harline score was mixed, either by the RKO sound editors in 1946 — which seems unlikely — or by whoever prepared this one for home video release; every note is blared at you at double the volume, at least, of the dialogue. Why?


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The Three Musketeers (1973) and The Four Musketeers (1974) Richard Lester and George MacDonald Fraser’s glorious swashbuckler, cut in twain by its producers and wonderful in any format. The StudioCanal Blu-ray is so sumptuous it may make your mouth water.


Paper Moon - Tatum O'Neal, Ryan O'Neal

Paper Moon (1973) A gorgeous evocation by Peter Bogdanovich of the Depression era Middle-West, filtered through the beautiful Alvin Sargent adaptation of Joe David Brown’s seriocomic novel Addie Pray, that looks even better today than it did 47 years ago. Paramount: Why is this essential 1970s American classic not available on Blu-ray?


Nickelodeon - colorNickelodeon - BW

Nickelodeon: Director’s Cut (Black and white) and Original Theatrical Version (1976) A stylish amalgam of two scripts that really didn’t mesh. It’s that, as well as the compromised casting, that keep that kept this entertaining and often delightful picture about the early days of American movies from potential greatness.


Monster in a Box - poster

Monster in a Box (1992) As with Jonathan Demme in 1987 (and very much unlike that rank egotist Steven Soderbergh in 1996) the director Nick Broomfield respected his writer and star Spalding Gray, getting out of his way and letting his idiosyncratic style of presentation carry the day.  Although perhaps inevitably none of the movies of his monologues after Swimming to Cambodia had the force and feel of originality that attended that landmark picture, Gray was such a genial, intelligent and almost gleefully neurotic figure that anything he had to say was worth hearing. Here he grapples, almost literally, with the expanding bulk of his first — alas, only — novel, Impossible Vacation while contemplating nirvana of a temporary sort (the Los Angeles sun); deliberate anguish visited, as it so often is, upon others by the United States government (the war in Nicaragua); the less lethal battle of writer and subject; and the elation that quickly turns to despair (Gray’s almost universally-reviled performance as the Stage Manager in the Lincoln Center Our Town). And that Gray can eventually find as well as humor some small comfort in an unscheduled incident during the play’s wrenching final scene of projectile vomiting by the young actor playing Wally Webb (Shane Culkin, older brother of Macauley, if it matters) is somehow entirely unsurprising.


The Bridge on the River Kwai - Hayakawa, Guinness

The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957) A beautifully observed epic that is, essentially, a chamber play with tragic overtones and which works on several levels: As a straight adventure saga, a stirring prison-break drama, a battle of wills, and a moving meditation on the folly of pride.


Texasville - resizedTexasville (1990) Peter Bogdanovich’s follow-up to his and Larry McMurtry’s The Last Picture Show. It doesn’t have the weight or the gravitas of its predecessor, but it doesn’t try to. As with the book on which it’s based the picture is its own shambling, affable self. And like Shorty, Jeff Bridges’ pet Queensland Blue in the story, it asks to be taken not for what it might be, but only as what it is.


Picture This: The Times of Peter Bogdanovich in Archer City (1990)
Picture This

George Hickenlooper’s rather strange documentary about the town that inspired Larry McMurtry’s The Last Picture Show and in which Peter Bogdanovich filmed it, and the making of the 1990 Texasville. Timothy Bottoms later claimed he reprised his role as Sonny in the sequel so he could produce this documentary, but aside from some unconvincing ruminations  which seem to be undone by Cybill Shepherd’s spontaneous behavior toward him in front of Hickenlooper’s camera, I could detect little of the bitterness the actor supposedly nurtured toward everyone on Picture Show for their alleged nastiness and lack of professionalism. A couple of Archer City residents grouse, with an inarticulate vehemence that smacks of sheer phoniness, about the production company, but as the town is reaping the financial rewards of hosting a Hollywood crew, that too seems weirdly like a put-up job for the documentarians. The DVD was obviously taken from a video source rather than the original film, and its ugliness as an artifact is mitigated only by the self-effacing charm of Bogdanovich and isolated moments such as those of McMurtry’s mother humorously telling tales on herself.


Hell House - McDowell at the climax

The Legend of Hell House (1973) Perhaps the most genuinely unnerving spook-story of its era. It still packs a wallop.


*A mansion, by the way, whose lush appointments were more likely to be seen in the residence of a Rockefeller than in the digs occupied by a clutch of Second City whores.

Text copyright 2020 by Scott Ross

Canvas sky and muslin tree: “Paper Moon” (1973)

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By Scott Ross

Paper Moon is a gorgeous evocation of the Depression era Middle-West, filtered through the superb Alvin Sargent adaptation of Joe David Brown’s seriocomic novel Addie Pray. Peter Bogdanovich, fresh off the one-two punch of The Last Picture Show and What’s Up, Doc?, engaged the great cinematographer László Kovács to work magic in black and white; together they made a serious comedy, one whose imagery bears comparison to the 1930s photographs of Dorothea Lange and Walker Evans yet which wears it, for the most part, lightly. It concerns Ryan O’Neal’s bunco expert Moses (“Moze”) Pray — he cons widows with Bibles gilt-embossed with their names, allegedly ordered by their late husbands — and the precocious orphan (Tatum O’Neal) he’s trying to take to her aunt’s house against her will and who may or may not be his illegitimate daughter.

Paper Moon - Tatum O'Neal, Ryan O'Neal

Tatum O’Neal is never more appealing in Paper Moon than when she smiles.

Bogdanovich worked with Sargent on restructuring the screenplay, removing it from the Deep South of Brown’s book and essentially only filming the first half. The second, involving an elaborate con intended to fleece a supposedly rich old woman, feels less organic than the first, set as it is in New Orleans rather than small Southern towns and keeping Addie and Moses (called “Long Boy” in the novel) apart for long stretches. It was a smart idea of Bogdanovich’s as well to pay off Moze and Addie’s escape from the law by having the rather sinister Kansas Sheriff (John Hillerman) track them down in Missouri and give Mose a brutal beating — which, fortunately, the filmmakers don’t suffer us to watch.

The Sheriff and his bootlegger twin brother are far from the only examples of period Americana Addie and Moze encounter: There are also the widows on whom they fob off their Bibles (and to whom, in some odd way, they’re doing a sentimental kindness); the friendly shopkeepers and clerks on whom they perpetrate that bit of grift involving making change which, if you’ve ever been its intended victim, as I once was while working as a bookseller, you well remember the sensation of; a pack of strange sibling hillbillies led by Randy Quaid whose rattletrap truck Mose attempts to swap for the snazzy Ford V-8 he knows every lawman in Kansas will soon be on the lookout for; a gullible hotel clerk (Burton Gilliam) who thinks he looks like a matinee idol; and an outrageous cooch dancer-cum-part-time whore called Trixie Delight (Madeline Kahn) and her adolescent maid Imogene (the astonishing P. J. Johnson). Although Johnson, no actress, does very little, she’s such a natural that her every word and gesture seem wonderful, and she’s aided immeasurably by her director’s cutting; her throwaway line about Miss Trixie (“I tried to push her out of a window in Little Rock once”) is even funnier for the abrupt cut that happens just as we’re wondering if we really heard her right.

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Madeline Kahn as Miss Trixie is so good she lifts the picture into the comedic stratosphere. At the director’s request, Sargent wrote Kahn a beautiful scene on a hillside, funny and unexpectedly touching, in which Trixie pleads with Addie for a brief shot at happiness. Kahn’s genius is evident from the way she segues from disingenuously coaxing Addie (“How’d you like a coloring book? Would you like that? You like Mickey the Mouse?”) to, after tripping and falling, shrieking, “Oh, son of a bitch!” and it was probably that sequence that got her a “Best Supporting Actress” Academy Award nomination.

She might have won had she not been put in competition, foolishly, with Tatum O’Neal. Since O’Neal is in almost every scene of the picture, and at least as much of it as her father, I don’t know what she can be thought to be supporting, other than the movie as a whole; the novel wasn’t, after all, called Moses Pray. I had somehow misremembered what Bogdanovich and others had said about her performance and had it in my head that it was pulled out of her by her director and patched together by the movie’s editor, Verna Fields. This appears to be far from the case. She had, like Johnson, never acted before, and while certainly Bogdanovich had to work especially delicately with his 8-year old star, she was required to do too much, in too many of his trademark long, unbroken takes, for her performance to have been manufactured. In another of Sargent’s great scenes which have no antecedents in Brown’s novel, she and her father argue for two minutes while driving down a flat Midwestern road,  filmed by Bogdanovich without a cut and during which the junior O’Neal must remember not only a complex dialogue sequence but a great deal of business involving a map and a cigar box while remaining in character and fluctuating between angrily sullen and sweetly agreeable. That’s a set of directions even accomplished actors would have difficulty pulling off; for a child her age, and without camera experience, it’s astonishing.

Paper Moon - Tatum and Ryan O'Neal

This isn’t the only sequence in which Tatum O’Neal exhibits almost preternatural range, but it’s perhaps the most illustrative. She’s especially endearing when she smiles — which Addie doesn’t, often. And why should she? Raised by a single mother, who is taken from her too soon, she’s saddled with a man who, while he might be her father, is anxious to dump her as quickly as he can, but no so anxious he doesn’t make some fast cash on her first. That two hundred dollars becomes the crux of the action in Paper Moon, as Moze first tries to pay the kid off and then realizes without admitting it aloud that they make a good team. (In Brown’s book, Long Boy is a much shrewder character, sending his money off to a bank account, but this might have made his movie counterpart seem both too slick and too well-heeled.)  Tatum O’Neal has some of the quickness and ingenuity that marked Jackie Coogan’s performance in The Kid, and there’s a slight resemblance, especially in Addie’s boyish haircut. (Even her husky voice is one you might expect to come from the mouth of a little boy.) There’s a lovely scene in which she rises from bed, takes her treasure-box into the bathroom and poses in the mirror like her deceased mother that is a small marvel. Yes, Bogdanovich was off-camera, telling her what to do, but there’s doing, and doing well, and that makes all the difference.*

I vividly remember how, in the ’70s and early ’80s, any picture shot in black-and-white was deemed “arty” or “pretentious,” and that Paper Moon was likewise traduced. This is, and was, utter codswallop. You can film anything you like in monochrome. You don’t have to have a specific artistic-symbolic reason. For Bogdanovich, the 1930s setting simply demanded it. And while I would never go as far as his friend Orson Welles, who claimed that no great acting performance had ever been given in color, I’ve never been especially enraptured by color film, nor seen any great need for it, outside of travelogue and spectacle. Maybe it helps to have been born and grown up in a transitional period when television and movies were moving from black-and-white to full-time color, and having never in one’s own family enjoyed a color television set; I didn’t have one of my own until I was nearly 30. But whatever the case, color seems important to me only for big, splashy musical numbers or pictures like Around the World in 80 Days, and the black-and-white palette (which is indeed a palette) seems to me far richer and more expressive, especially for drama and for movies set in the recent past.

László Kovács was such a wizard with light and shadow that he was able to produce glorious images in black, white and gray and deep-focus. (The director’s estranged wife, Polly Platt, did the superb production and costume design.) I disagree with Welles and Bogdanovich that the eye sees that way — you’ve only to consciously notice how you perceive foreground and background to know it doesn’t — but deep-focus not only gives the scenes texture and the objects in them contrast but allows for subtle juxtapositions, such as the way a forlorn Addie, glimpsed behind Moze, is contrasted in a reverse-angle shot of a train station agent by the two children happily playing in the yard behind him. The director’s penchant for long, complex scenes played in full, always satisfying, is given free reign in Paper Moon, and seeing them today is especially poignant because while few filmmakers refrained from a lot of cutting in the ’70s, almost no one does now. These sequences, which never call attention to themselves, are usually not noticed, especially by image-junkies who need speed and rapid-eye-movement editing to get their cinema fix. For Bogdanovich, even a 360 degree panning shot, during a highway chase, feels elegant and doesn’t call attention to itself. (Although I gather he complained that no one noticed. If you want the critics to see that sort of thing, you have to be one hell of a lot more obvious in the way you achieve it. Study Scorsese if you seek to learn Elevation to the Pantheon of Cineastes in 10 Easy Lessons.)†

Paper Moon - Tatum O'Neal, PJ Johnson

O’Neal and P. J. Johnson

Ryan O’Neal clearly learned a great deal about comedy from starring in What’s Up, Doc? for Bogdanovich. He’s cool and polished here, and not above showing us that Moze is not quite as smooth as he thinks he is. The mustache the actor sports, and his short period hair, also remove some of his prettiness,  and his frequent comic contretemps with his real-life daughter are among the picture’s high spots. Among the many beautifully observed minor performances are those by Liz Ross, Yvonne Harrison, Eleanor Bogart and Dorothy Forster as widows conned by Moze and Addie, Rose-Mary Rumbley as Addie’s Aunt Billie, Dorothy Price as a garrulous and friendly old saleslady, and Dejah Moore as a pleasant but rather dim young salesgirl bilked by Addie out of a $20 Bill. As with many “road” movies, the ending of Paper Moon is bittersweet, and you may be forgiven for feeling wistful when Addie forsakes the obvious love and comfort she’d get from staying in her aunt’s home for the dubious charms of life on the road as a grifter with her possible father. But could Addie ever really be content with so sedate an existence after the excitement and fun of doing business with Moze?

Paper Moon - Tatum O'Neal with moon

The movie’s title was suggested to Bogdanovich by the great 1932 Harold Arlen/”Yip” Harburg song (Say, it’s only a paper moon/ Sailing over a cardboard sea…)‡ he was considering for the picture’s diagetic background score of period recordings. The filmmaker instinctively understood, just from the title, how beautifully that paean to carnival make-believe fit the picture’s con-artist milieu. (Welles said the idea was so good Bogdanovich ought to forget making the movie and just release the title.) Meeting resistance to the title change from Paramount, the director got Sargent to write an appropriate moment involving a paper moon to their preexisting carnival scene, which also had the felicitous advantage of providing a lovely moment at the picture’s climax showing how much Moze and Addie mean to each other, without them saying so. The song also inspired the movie’s famous poster image. Of course, in the movie, the poignancy of Addie’s paper moon photo is that Moze is too busy ogling girls at a peep-show to sit with her. But that too has resonance; one of the emotions Moze must surely be feeling when he finally looks at it is regret.


*We live in such a weirdly Puritanical age just now that should any filmmaker today dare show a little girl in her underwear he’d doubtless be condemned as a pornographer, and worse. And if he got his child star to smoke organic cigarettes on cue…

†I don’t know whether Bogdanovich planned it, or if it was simply an unexpected gesture by his star, but there’s a fast moment when Ryan O’Neal slams on the brakes at a service station and both Tatum and P. J. Johnson bounce out of their seats that is absolutely hilarious. If Paper Moon was a slapstick comedy, they’d both have gone flying out of the car. But I don’t know that it would have been any funnier that way than it is.

‡Although credited to Arlen, Harburg and Billy Rose, “Paper Moon” was written by Arlen and Harburg for the flop Ben Hecht and Gene Fowler play The Great Magoo, which Rose produced. It was customary in those days for producers to claim song-writing credit they hadn’t earned, and Rose was one of the era’s biggest customers.

Text copyright 2020 by Scott Ross

Necrology, 2019: Writers, Artists, Musicians, Singers and Composers

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By Scott Ross

Although I am still in something of a state of disbelief over the deaths, in 2018, of Harlan Ellison and William Goldman who, although neither had published much of anything new in decades, remain among the American writers highest in my personal Pantheon, this past year —  as is increasingly the case as one ages — saw the passing of several touchstones: Two of my favorite writers, who could not have been further apart except in general excellence (Toni Morrison, John Simon); a novelist (Patricia Nell Warrren) whose popular work from my nascent gay adolescence meant more to me at that time than almost any other’s; an actor (Albert Finney) and a comedian (Tim Conway) I cherished; a cartoonist of genius (Howard Cruse) whose unabashedly gay milieu helped limn the contours of my young manhood; four musical figures whose recordings — two known to me from childhood (André Previn, Doris Day), one from puberty (Michel Legrand) and the last from my hot youth (Leon Redbone) — remain unimpeachable favorites of my adulthood; and a giant of the theatre  (Harold Prince) whose approach to staging musical plays was vastly influential in the culture at large, and to the way I wrote my own plays. These are the ones that hurt the most, but there was, as there always is, plenty of only slightly lesser tristesse to go around in 2019.


I. Writers

Perry Deane Young, 77.
A journalist and playwright, Young was mainstream and “out” when the latter was pretty much a career-killer unless one lived in San Francisco. (Young worked and lived largely in North Carolina.) His most well-known books were Two of the Missing, about the disappearances of his fellow Vietnam war correspondents Sean Flynn (Errol’s son) and Dana Stone, and, with David Kopay, The David Kopay Story, detailing the former National League running back’s life, career, and coming out… in 1975. It sold well, but few then were ready to deal with the reality of gay athletes, out or not. Most sports fans and athletes still aren’t.


Patricia Nell Warren
, 82.
Patricia Nell Warren - The Front Runner

Warren’s truly groundbreaking novel The Front Runner was for me, at 17 and coming to terms with my own sexuality, a kind of lifeline. In 1978 there were very few prominent, un-closeted personalities, in any field. (Had I only known about Harvey Milk!) Warren’s book, with its unapologetic young athletic protagonist Billy Sive, helped anchor, and remind me — as we needed reminding in those immediate post-Stonewall years — that my being gay need neither define the totality of who I was, nor cause me shame: Not all faggots lisped, or wore dresses, or screamed like queens. It would take me a while longer to not be embarrassed by those who did. But The Front Runner, the first bestselling, mainstream gay novel, gave me, and millions of young gay boys like me, permission to be themselves.

I haven’t been on Facebook in years, but I am grateful now that I became friendly with Patricia Nell Warren there, and had the chance to tell her how much her novel meant, and continues to mean, to me.

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Toni Morrison, 88.
Although I suspect her finest work was behind her by the time of her death (I haven’t yet read Home and God Help the Child, so I’m open to being proven wrong) if you live to 88 and your oeuvre includes such astonishments as The Bluest Eye, Song of Solomon, Sula, Jazz, Paradise, Love and that modern miracle of expressive outrage, Beloved, the Nobels and Pulitzers you accrue mean far less than the totality of your imaginative output, which is so rich and unparalleled it secures you a place in the canon beside Twain, Melville, Welty and the Fitzgerald of The Great Gatsby. Like Ray Bradbury at his most lyrical, Morrison was a prose poet, and her genius was of surpassing brilliance. When you read her, you lose track of the number of times her descriptive compositions stop your breath — and your heart. With Morrison’s death, America has lost the last of its greatest, and most vital, post-war poet-novelists.

Alvin Sargent (née Alvin Supowitz), 92.
The writer of such notable American movies as The Sterile Cuckoo (1969), The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds (1972), Love and Pain and the Whole Damn Thing (1973), Straight Time (1978, with Jeffrey Boam), Dominick and Eugene (1988) and Ordinary People (1980), the latter of which won him an Oscar®, Sargent is also remembered, fondly, for his screenplays for Paper Moon (1973) and Julia (1977), for which he won his first Academy Award. That a writer of Sargent’s varied gifts ended his career scripting four Spider-Man movies is a perfect paradigm; it says everything about the state of 21st century popular culture and the descending arc of the American screenwriter’s life.

Herman Wouk, 103.
The author of The Caine Mutiny (book and play) published his last novel, The Lawgiver, at 97, and his final book at 100. That says nothing about the quality of his work (or wouk) but it’s impressive nonetheless.

Roger O. Hirson, 93.
Remembered chiefly for his book for the hit Bob Fosse musical Pippin, Hirson had the unhappy distinction of being one of the few librettists in modern times barred from rehearsals of a Broadway musical by his show’s director.

Martin Charnin, 84.
Originally a performer (he was Big Deal, one of the Jets, in West Side Story, later known as a lyricist, later a director, Charnin specialized in flops: Hot Spot (1963, one month and change), Mata Hari (1967; closed in D.C.), La Strada (1969; 1 performance), Two by Two (1971, less than a year on Danny Kaye’s name), Nash at Nine (1973, 2 weeks), Bar Mitzvah Boy (1979, who knows?), I Remember Mama (1979, 3 months), The First (1981, 3 months) – lyricist, director; co-book writer with Joel Siegel, A Little Family Business (1982, 12 performances), Cafe Crown (1 month and change). He was cursed to have a single hit, Annie (1977, 2,377 performances) which he conceived and directed and for which he supplied a set of mostly lukewarm lyrics. Charnin was so embarrassed by the 1982 movie he attempted to re-tool the show in response, and to coast on those attempts, periodically for the rest of his life: Annie Warbucks (1993), something called Annie and the Hoods for which I can find no information), The Annie Christmas Show (1977). Blessed is the man who never has a hit, for he will keep trying other things.

Larry Siegel, 93.
Known for his scripts for MAD Magazine movie satires, Siegel was also a writer on Laugh-In and, for four non-consecutive seasons, The Carol Burnett Show.

Terrance Dicks, 84.
As the Script Editor for Doctor Who from 1969–74 (the John Pertwee years) Dicks was responsible for the series “Day of the Daleks,” “The Sea Devils,” “The Three Doctors,” “Carnival of Monsters,” and “Planet of the Spiders,” as well as many of the Who paperback novelizations of the time.

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Alan Bates and Janet Suzman in the movie of Peter Nichols’ play A Day in the Death of Joe Egg (1972).

Peter Nichols, 92.
Nichols famously turned his experience as the father of a spastic child into the the giddily theatrical, often hilarious and, ultimately, heartbreaking, play (and subsequent movie) A Day in the Death of Joe Egg. Among his other notable works are the plays The National Health, Privates on Parade (also a movie) and Passion Play.

Mardik Martin, 84.
This Iranian-born Armenian-American screenwriter’s credits include Mean Streets (written with Martin Scorsese), Valentino (with Ken Russell), New York, New York (with Earl Mac Rauch) and, with Paul Schrader, Raging Bull. The first title represents Scorsese’s rise, the second Russell’s nadir… and the last two Scorsese’s decline.

Rudy Behlmer, 92.
Behlmer’s forte as a film historian was to edit studio memoranda into compelling narratives (Memo from David O. Selznick, Inside Warner Bros., 1935 – 1951, Memo from Daryl F. Zanuck) illuminating factory practices during the first American movie “golden age.” His Behind the Scenes: The Making of… limns the process by which such milestones as Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, The Maltese Falcon and Singin’ in the Rain were created.

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The essence of Jack Lemmon: Al Hirschfeld’s brilliant caricature for Bernard Slade’s play Tribute.

Bernard Slade, 89.
This Canadian teleplay author, latterly a playwright and screenwriter, had on his c.v. such immortal entries as The Flying Nun, The Partridge Family, Same Time Next Year, Romantic Comedy and Tribute. That last title was so poor even Jack Lemmon couldn’t keep it running, and the subsequent movie ranks (appropriate word) as perhaps Lemmon’s worst. Not him in it, but the picture itself.

Ernest J. Gaines, 86.
The venerated author of The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, A Gathering of Old Men and A Lesson Before Dying — as with so many titles, books I have in my library but have not (yet) read.

William Luce. 88.
A playwright whose specialty was one-woman (and, occasionally, one-man) shows: The Belle of Amherst, Zelda, Lillian, Lucifer’s Child, Barrymore) often with Charles Nelson Reilly directing and, occasionally, with some very good verbiage indeed.

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John Simon, 94.
One of the few great theatre critics, living or dead, in America, Simon suffered the stroke that ultimately killed him while at a theatre, doing the thing he loved most: Seeing a play and preparing to write about it. That it was a dinner theatre might have made even Simon chuckle.

Michael Feingold, in a spurious obituary for American Theatre, wrote, “Though I knew John for nearly half a century, I never fully understood why he continued to go to the theatre and write about it. In his old age, as his public status and the platform for his writing diminished in stature, I began to suspect that his devotion to his art was partly an addiction and partly a Don Quixote-like quest for an unattainable grail. These are basic elements of the drive that keeps all theatre critics at their work, but John embraced the two in a most unusual way. He did not confine himself to theatre, but regularly reviewed films, books, and music as well. A cultural omnivore whose erudition was as tremendous as his constant need for new works to evaluate, he searched through every creation he confronted to determine its flaws.” (And that’s just the opening paragraph!) In the Feingoldian view of the universe, Heaven forbid a man write about more than one subject, or continue to be enthusiastic about the arts, and about writing, in his final years. And, apparently, if you can no longer write for major publications, and regardless of whether that suggests a deficiency in those organs themselves, you are a pathetic old loser if you write only for your own blog… or your own pleasure.

I should like to see with what wonders Feingold (who also used to write for a major paper, and no longer does) will fill his dotage.


II. Artists/Cartoonists

Gahan Wilson - Insane Eye Doctor resizedGahan Wilson, 89.
Wilson was Charles Addams pushed to an extreme, at once more horrific, and often funnier, than that great, macabre artist. Naturally, Wilson’s métier was not Addams’ New Yorker but National Lampoon.

Howard Cruse, 75.Howard Cruse 750x_0

In 1983, readers of the once-great gay weekly The Advocate were introduced to Wendel, Cruse’s instantly appealing comic strip, which grew from a satire on cruising to a marvelous showplace for his incisive wit and fluid, expansive drawing style. (The artist acknowledged later that, in the age of AIDS, that concept was too fraught with anxiety.) Wendel was soon paired with the semi-closeted actor and single father Ollie, their private world opening to include friends, neighbors, employers and various passers-by whose richness was unparalleled in the world of gay cartoons to that point. What this Advocate reader didn’t know then was that Cruse was a noted underground comics artist whose strip Barefootz, accused of cutesiness by some, contained a gay hippie character (Headrack). Cruse was the founding editor, in 1979, of the truly revolutionary Denis Kitchen publication Gay Comix, a peripatetic anthology of stories, some humorous, some more dramatic, by gay and Lesbian artists.* Wendel ended its run in 1989, and Cruse spent the next six years working on his astonishing, somewhat autobiographical graphic novel Stuck Rubber Baby, which was published to great acclaim in 1995. As the son of an Alabama preacher Cruse in his art, and his life (he married his partner Eddie Sedarbaum in 2004 after the two moved to Massachusetts) gave a gentle middle finger to his repressive upbringing, which is of course the best revenge any gay man or Lesbian in America.


III. Music

Daryl Dragon
, 76.
One-half, with Toni Tennille, of The Captain & Tennille, Dragon was keyboardist for The Beach Boys from 1967 — 1972, during which time Mike Love gave him the nickname (“Captain Keyboard”) that, along with the pair’s doggedly middle-of-the-road hits, defined him in the pop world of the 1970s.

Michel Legrand resized

Michel Legrand, 86.
The protean French composer, arranger, conductor and jazz pianist first came to my attention with his witty score (reportedly composed in a week) for the Richard Lester/George MacDonald Fraser The Three Musketeers in 1973. Only later did I become aware of the range of his work, from the — as they now say “through-sung” — Les Parapluies de Cherbourg (1964) to his scores for The Thomas Crown Affair (and which included the song “The Windmills of Your Mind” which, with a lyric by Marilyn and Alan Bergman, won the trio an Academy Award®), Richard Brooks’ The Happy Ending (“What Are You Doing the Rest of Your Life?” came from that), Picasso Summer, Summer of ’42 (second Oscar®), Orson Welles’ F for Fake, Atlantic City for Louis Malle and (again with the Bergmans) Barbra Streisand’s Yentl (third Oscar®). His finest movie work, however, is his superb score for the Joseph Losey/Harold Pinter masterpiece The Go-Between (1971), a set of variations on a theme that perfectly limns the movie’s rising (and ironic) action. Legrand may not have been among the “heavyweight” film composers, but his charm is entirely abundant. His final project, fittingly enough, was honoring his promise to score Welles’ The Other Side of the Wind when it was, finally, edited. Neither man, I suspect, could imagine it would take 38 years.

Peter Tork, 77.
Although The Monkees was a pre-fabricated group, American television’s response to the Beatles, Tork was an accomplished musician in the early ‘60s Greenwich Village “folk scene.” (Interestingly, his friend Stephen Stills, rejected for The Monkees, recommended Tork as a possible replacement.) Not permitted to play on the group’s first two albums, Tork eventually played keyboards, bass guitar, banjo, harpsichord, and other instruments on subsequent recordings. For a pre-fab quartet, The Monkees (like the later Partridge Family) had some surprisingly good songs, and song writers. Their theme was written by Tommy Boyce and Bobby Hart, and the pair also composed “Last Train to Clarksville” and “Valleri.” Neil Diamond wrote “I’m a Believer” for the group, Jeff Barry “She Hangs Out,” Harry Nilsson “Daddy’s Song” and “Cuddly Toy” (although Nilsson’s own vocals for both are superior to Davey Jones’), Gerry Goffin and Carole King “Pleasant Valley Sunday” and the Kingston Trio’s John Stewart “Daydream Believer.”

André Previn at the piano resized

André Previn, 89.
Everything I might say about Previn, whom I venerate, I said previously on this blog. Please click the link.

Doris Day - Be Kind to Animals or I'll Kill You

Doris Day (née Doris Mary Anne Kappelhoff), 97.
When I was a child, the smirking jokes about Day’s perennial virginity were still abroad in the land, as were (alas) her many bad comedies and the television series that seemed to change her character every season. Fortunately, she outlived the sniping, and the re-evaluation of her singing and her acting brought her some belated praise. (If you ever wish to become homicidally enraged at the otherwise only mildly annoying phrases “Big time” and “knocks it out of the park,” I recommend Tom Santopietro’s Considering Doris Day.) With the passage of time it is now possible to see the good in pictures like The Pajama Game, The Man Who Knew Too Much, The Thrill of it All and even The Glass Bottom Boat and Where Were You When the Lights Went Out?, or at least how good Day is in them. Her singing, warm and surprisingly sexy and completed by an entrancing vibrato, never required defending, and her work for animal welfare mitigates her lifelong Republicanism.

The Leon Redbone Movie - 5) Editorial Opinion resized

A sketch for an animated Leon short I wanted to create in the early 1980s. The $3.50 admission price dates it as much as that roll of tickets in the box office. And I should have put a mustache or sunglasses on that fish-head.

Leon Redbone (née Dickran Gobalian), 69.
I was introduced to Redbone via my best friend in the early 1980s, when he played me the Double Time LP. I was uncertain exactly what we were hearing — was this an old black blues shouter? — and when Redbone sang “The Sheik of Araby” I was literally on my hands and knees, weeping and helpless with laughter. Once I recovered I began to appreciate what a splendid musician Leon (he was always “Leon” to us) really was, and how expressive his sometimes extremely odd vocalizations could be. I was also, being an aficionado of “old music,” impressed by his wide-ranging taste and knowledge of American popular song. Seeing him in a small club called The Pier in Raleigh, N.C. a few months later was a revelation; among other things, I was (my reaction to “Sheik” notwithstanding) unprepared for just how deadpan funny he could be, what with stick like taking Polaroids of his audience or murmuring, “Aw, you shouldn’t have” and “Oh, behave yourselves” after an ovation. And seeing him up close revealed what a remarkable guitarist he was. The next time we saw Leon live was at the large Memorial Hall on the UNC-Chapel Hill campus and the last at the much smaller ArtsCenter in Carrboro. That rise and declension seems almost a paradigm for fame in America: If we’d seen him a fourth time, it would likely have been in some dive-bar, with a blender drowning out his voice.

Redbone was born in Cyprus and raised in Canada, shocking many of us who assumed that, with that voice, and his pith helmets, shades, mutton-chops, bushy mustache, trim goatee and Malacca canes he simply had to be a native of New Orleans. Although he suffered from dementia, when he died earlier this year Leon left a typically impish self-obituary: “It is with heavy hearts we announce that early this morning, May 30th, 2019, Leon Redbone crossed the delta for that beautiful shore at the age of 127.”



IV. Nonesuch


Word Jazz 564848 resizedKen Nordine
, 98.
Utilizing his deep, resonant voice and such aggregations as the Fred Katz Group, Nordine created a unique form he called “Word Jazz,” which he successfully exploited on LP (Word Jazz, Son of Word Jazz, Love Words) and on his long-running public radio show. It was a weird hybrid. Not the jazz-poetry-and-music mix, but the tone that resulted; there were times when Nordine’s words wafted over you like a scented breeze and others at which he seemed the most pretentious, arty phony you ever heard. When, at the end of one of his tracks on the Disney Stay Awake album, he intones, both portentously and with a depressive’s sigh, “Damn… the circus,” you may at first not know whether to nod in recognition or burst out in derisive laughter at the clichéd obviousness of the line. I think the latter response is the more honest, but I suppose it’s all a matter of taste.

Damn… the choices.



*
Weirdly, Alison Bechdel now seems to get all or most of the credit for early “out and proud” cartooning but with, as they say, due respect to Bechdel’s impressive artistic and narrative gifts, one chalks this “Howard Who?” attitude up to the current arbiters of “Woke” culture who have proclaimed, loudly, and in their various manners, that the proper human equation is an automatic “#Girl = Good / Boy = Bad.” Especially when it comes to presidential nominees. (Always excepting you are Tulsi Gabbard, of course.)

Text copyright 2019 by Scott Ross